It is widely acknowledged that social-science and liberal-arts faculty at American universities are disproportionately of the left, and the hard-left in particular. Criticism of this fact often revolves around the idea that professors preach in their classrooms, and students facing such a faculty come away with a distorted view of how the world works and of whom it is constituted.
But especially at the departmental level, a university’s curriculum is ordinarily decided not by the administration but the faculty itself. Thus, if the faculty tilts substantially left and also has no respect for the value of academic freedom, the resulting effect on American higher education goes beyond what they themselves say in their classrooms. Leftist faculty may use their influence to prevent ideas that criticize leftist beliefs from being taught. My experience in the economics department at Wright State University, where I have taught for over 25 years, has been a grimly classic example.
When I arrived at WSU in 1994, the Internet was in a primitive state. Given that no one at the graduate school where I earned my Ph.D. knew anything about the department, I was very surprised to learn when I got there that the department had long history of favorably teaching radical-leftist economics—Marxism, post-Keynesianism, feminist economics, and other schools of thought united by the belief that any social order that is the result of people freely managing their own affairs in pursuit of their own interests is likely to lead to bad, even unjust outcomes.
I want to emphasize that this did not bother me. I have always been a strong believer in academic freedom—not so much because it is good for faculty, but for students. For example, soon after I arrived, I audited a required course taught by one of my radical colleagues and learned a lot. But students are paying a lot of money to go to college and deserve an accurate presentation of human knowledge that is not politically circumscribed.
Because of my strong belief in academic freedom, along with, I suspect, my refusal to join the faculty union for ethical reasons during its organizing drive when I first arrived, the department’s radicals strongly opposed my being tenured. (I have written on what I believe to be the union’s very damaging role in a costly faculty strike at WSU last year here.) Nonetheless, the then-dean was on my side, and I achieved tenure. Alas, certain things are unforgivable, and when I went up for full professor years later, I actually lost the department vote. This happened after the promotion-and-tenure committee chair (a radical) refused to reschedule the committee meeting after one of the members, a supporter of mine, had told him well in advance that he couldn’t make it. But, once again, despite radical opposition, I was promoted.
So, I have long been seen as an ideologically incorrect troublemaker. And perhaps this reputation preceded me when, in December, 2015, I brought to our department’s undergraduate-curriculum committee a proposal that I be allowed to teach in the department a course on the theory and practice of Marxism, which I had offered successfully in the honors program (open only to honors students throughout the university) a year prior. In graduate school, I never would have imagined that I would want to teach such a course, but at WSU, Marx is highly praised in more than one course. And so, I thought it important to provide students with a more historically complete view. Remarkably, when I proposed the course to the department, it was turned down, an unprecedented event during my two-plus decades there. What is more, this occurred after two faculty members had submitted anonymous complaints to the then-department chair objecting to the course. The chair summarized these remarks for the committee but revealed neither the full content nor the senders.
I was stunned that department radicals were so indifferent to someone else’s academic freedom. I did nothing other than propose the class as a one-time topics course, ordinarily a routine request that has been granted many times in my career. The course was never scheduled, even though the then-chair, a radical, never responded to my questions over whether it was her policy to deny this request. Finally, President Trump issued an executive order said to promote academic freedom in spring, 2019. Like many universities, WSU rushed to assure the world that it was already committed to such freedom. I asked our representative to the faculty senate to propose an amendment to a resolution they were considering, which he did. The amendment specifically added language to the resolution supporting not just the protection of faculty freedom of expression from violations by the administration and people outside the university, but also of other faculty within it. When he presented the amendment, some senators seemed mystified that such a threat could exist, and one finally proposed that this, along with more mundane amendments, be sent to a standing committee for consideration. I asked the chair of the committee, a leftist professor from a different department whom I had known and worked with congenially for years, if I could attend. He replied, remarkably in a public university, that I really couldn’t, because no one not a member of the committee traditionally attended. I left it at that, not wanting to stoke conflict.
Only recently, four and a half years after the original event, and exhausting as far as I could tell the options within WSU, did I decide to contact a reporter, who did a thorough job and reported the absurd sequence of events professionally. Thankfully, sunlight may prove to be the best disinfectant. Soon after the article came out, some in my department (which has had some turnover, including the chair) proposed that it reconsider. As I write, the department’s undergraduate-curriculum committee (albeit with a dissenting vote) has sent the class to the department, which has yet to decide. Even if it approves, the business college and the university must also do so. This means that WSU is not yet on the record as agreeing that criticism of Marxism is acceptable in its economics curriculum. I should add that this is not a blanket indictment of WSU. Several people there, including the director of the interdisciplinary honors program, where I have taught the course twice, have been steadfast in upholding academic freedom. But in my experience, when a portion of the university is under the grip of leftist radicalism, censorious hostility to diversity of opinion is not far behind.
What else have I learned from this? First, whatever their species, leftists hang together. As noted above, my current and previous radical colleagues have advocated numerous varieties of radical economics. But each of them will go to bat for the other. Second, they view their conquest of the curriculum as non-negotiable and are implacably hostile to academic freedom if it is exercised to call their beliefs into question. Third, those who find themselves in similar circumstances should make every effort to resolve things in-house, but if necessary should not be afraid, based on the evidence they have accumulated, to let the world know, because the taxpaying public is not fond of radical censorship.
Image: wal_172619, Public Domain